When French President Emmanuel Macron denounced populist nationalism this week and called on world leaders to support institutions such as the United Nations that defend “the common good of the world,” liberal elites cheered. The speech was seen as a rebuke of President Trump, whose opposition to “globalism” and embrace of “nationalism” are held up as signs of the decay of American conservatism and U.S. global leadership.
Sorry, but American conservatives were opposing the globalist project long before Trump arrived on the scene.
Back in the early 1990s, President Bill Clinton’s soon-to-be deputy secretary of state, Strobe Talbott, said openly that “all countries are basically social arrangements [that] are all artificial and temporary.” He added, “Within the next hundred years nationhood as we know it will be obsolete; all states will recognize a single global authority.” Conservatives, as opposed to liberals such as Talbott, don’t see America as a temporary social arrangement. They recognize the march toward supranational global authority as fundamentally undemocratic, because it represents a growing concentration of power in the hands of unelected bureaucrats presiding over unaccountable institutions further and further removed from the people affected by their decisions.
As Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman explained in his 1962 classic, “Capitalism and Freedom”: “If government is to exercise power, better in the county than in the state, better in the state than in Washington,” because “if I do not like what my local community does I can move to another local community. If I do not like that my state does, I can move to another. If I do not like what Washington imposes, I have few alternatives in this world of jealous nations.” Where, exactly, is one supposed to move when one does not like what global institutions impose?
American conservatives believe in international cooperation to address common challenges. But they refuse to cede American sovereignty to supranational institutions, or to see America tied down with thousands of Lilliputian threads spun out of treaties and institutions that constrain her freedom of action. They understand that what stopped the march of Nazism and Communism in the 20th century was not international law but the principled projection of power by the world’s democracies led by a sovereign United States. And what prevents China from invading Taiwan, or North Korea from attacking South Korea, today is not fear of U.N. censure but fear of the U.S. military. A strong America is the only guarantor of world peace. That’s why President George W. Bush withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and refused to join the International Criminal Court, and why President Trump is withdrawing from pacts such as the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty today.
There is also nothing inherently wrong with populism. American conservatives have always been populists, because we believe that millions of individuals can make better decisions about their own lives than a cadre of elite central planners ever could. As the founder of the modern conservative movement, William F. Buckley Jr., famously declared, “I should sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the faculty members of Harvard University.”
American conservatives have always been nationalists, but while European nationalism is based on “blood and soil,” ours is a creedal nationalism built on an idea -- the idea of human freedom. That is why America can make the audacious claim that we are an “exceptional” nation. While a family of immigrants can live in France for generations and still not be accepted as “French,” when immigrants jump into the Great American Melting Pot they become indistinguishable from any other American within a generation. European nationalism is inherently exclusive; American nationalism is inherently inclusive. And there are millions across the world who are already Americans in their hearts, even though they have not arrived here yet.
The problem we face today is not the rise of populism or nationalism. It is that the bigots of the alt-right are seeking to foist European-style blood-and-soil nationalism on to the American body politic. It won’t work, because blood-and-soil nationalism is inimical to our founding principles. The Declaration of Independence says that “all men” -- not all “Americans” or all “citizens” -- “are created equal.” America has no “Volk.” The American body politic will reject the false nationalism of the alt-right like the foreign virus that it is.
But it does not follow that we must also reject American-style nationalism or embrace the globalist project. If that does not please, Monsieur Macron, tant pis!
Follow Marc A. Thiessen on Twitter, @marcthiessen.